Air Vice-Marshal Peter Dye, Director General of the RAF Museum, takes an in-depth look at the crucial role played by logistics during the Battle of Britain, and finds some surprising facts that seem to run counter to the accepted view of the Few" against lithe many"
It is arguable that the Battle of Britain was lost long before the Second World War started. Luftwaffe doctrine, so successful in establishing a powerful synergy between air and land operations, was deeply flawed in its understanding of the fundamentals of air power. In contrast, Britain's Air Ministry, planning the rapid expansion of the front line, had clearly understood the lessons of the First World War and the high human and material costs. By providing the proper economic and logistic basis, the air staffs had established the foundation for increasing Allied air superiority as the war progressed.
Even so, their pre-war planning was not flawless. Indeed, at a tactical and operational level the Luftwaffe enjoyed self-evident advantages. But by getting the fundamentals right and being ready to learn from painful early reverses, the RAF put itself in a significantly stronger position to fight the Battle of Britain than the Luftwaffe.
This is not to deny the huge importance of technology, tactics, leadership and the courage of individual pilots in determining the final outcome. No doubt these issues will continue to dominate the debate on the conduct of the Battle of Britain for the foreseeable future. But the possibility of a Luftwaffe victory was compromised by pre-war plans that gave the RAF's Fighter Command a quantitative advantage, and the means to sustain this advantage, denied to its opponents.
As the prospect of war increased, the RAF turned to previous experience for some indication of what to prepare for. According to the Ai r Staff's secret calculations the monthly wastage rate (wastage being defined as loss by deterioration, wear or destruction) for single-seat fighters engaged in Home Defence would be 100 per cent, and for single seat fighter pilots 30 per cent. Thus it was anticipated that a fighter force of 50 squadrons would suffer wastage of 1,000 aircraft a month on active operations. Assuming that the depots could repair half of these machines, industry would need to produce 500 new aircraft a month just to maintain front-line strength. To cope with peaks in attrition, and the inevitable delay in mobilising industrial production, reserves equal to at least six weeks' wastage would also be required (some 1,500 aircraft) . Finally, approximately 300 new fighter pilots would be needed each month, although it was recognised that dilution would be a major factor in determining whether operational effectiveness could be sustained.
In the event these calculations did not prove to be grossly unrealistic, as Figure 1 indicates. Importantly, in recognising the attritional nature of any future war, the Air Staff had laid the foundations of an expansion plan that would provide the RAF with the resources to defeat the Luftwaffe both in terms of availability and sustainability.
Between 1934 and 1938 there were eight separate expansion schemes designed to close the equipment gap with Germany. For Fighter Command the intention had been to provide 50 squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires by March 1942, the number deemed necessary to defend against a possible attack by 2,000 German bombers. In the event this was achieved - just - by July 1940.
Outproducing the enemy
The expansion of the British aircraft industry was an immense achievement in which huge obstacles had to be overcome. Perhaps the most significant development in pre-war planning was the introduction of the War Potential programme that sought to give Britain the ability to produce 2,000 aircraft a month by the end of 1941. By comparison, German aircraft production languished in the early part of the war. While Britain produced 4,283 Hurricanes and Spitfires in 1940 against a planned total of 3,602, Germany produced only 1,870 Messerschmitt Bf 109s against a planned total of 2,412. Incredibly, Germany did not mobilise its aircraft industry on the outbreak of war; nor did it seek to expand the Luftwaffe's repair capability to make good this deficiency. Thus, in September 1940, at the height of the Battle, Britain produced 467 Hurricanes and Spitfires while Germany produced 218 Bf 109s.
It became rapidly apparent, even before the outbreak of war, that the RAF would not have the capacity to meet the anticipated volume of repairs. So it was agreed in October 1939 to set up the Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO) under Lord Nuffield, who would also control the RAF's own repair organisation. The CRO came into being in January 1940, and by the year's end it had repaired 4,955 airframes, about 25 per cent of the total airframe output. Similar arrangements, but organised around the original manufacturer, were put in place for engine and propeller repair.